The following is a short assessment of Kreymborg’s role in the Provincetown Players, as well as brief analyses of “Lima Beans” and “Manikin and Minkin.”
After hearing about the Provincetown Players from William Zorach, Kreymborg attended a rehearsal of a Eugene O’Neil play and, as he recalls in Troubadour, he was “thrilled to the hypothesis that at last something was happening in the theatre…Here was what he had been hoping for in the theatre: a creative group, putting on its own plays and learning the entire profession of stagecraft” (Kreymborg 306-307). Yet while he admired the work of the Players, Kreymborg felt that they were focused too narrowly on naturalism and would not encourage the sort of plays that he was writing. At the advice of Zorach, Kreymborg submitted Lima Beans in 1916 only to have it “almost unanimously” rejected. After Jack Reed, a member of the Players, threatened to resign if Lima Beans was not accepted, however, the group allowed Kreymborg to produce it as long as he provided his own acting personnel. Performed on the same bill as Eugene O’Neil’s Before Breakfast and Neith Boyce’s Two Sons in December of 1916, Kreymborg recalls that Lima Beans was an overwhelming success, prompting sixteen curtain calls and an “unheard of pandemonium” (Kreymborg 311). Yet despite the initial success of Lima Beans, Kreymborg’s work highlighted a paradox in the attitude of the Players: though they were encouraging toward new playwrights, they were only amenable to certain forms of experimentation.
As Robert Karoly Sarlos argues in Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players, “The Provincetowners did not prove equally hospitable to all recruits; their laboratory emphasized content over form too strongly” (Sarlos 88). With Kreymborg’s focus on music and poetry as the organizing principle of the dialogue in his plays, his work stood at odds with the Players’ typical productions, and the second manuscript he submitted, Manikin and Minikin, was rejected. He recalls in Troubadour that he felt like an outsider in the group, writing that although he “was elected a member of the Provincetown group…he did not feel at home in this new environment…and his own love of experiment, seeking more room for poetry in the theatre, was not seriously encouraged” (Kreymborg 312). Because Kreymborg felt that the theater was not “sufficiently daring and elastic,” he approached Jig Cook about creating a bill of poetic plays that he would fund himself. The result was the Others Players’ Bill, which consisted of Kreymborg’s “Manikin and Minikin” and “Jack’s House,” Rihani’s Static Dances, and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Two Slatterns and a King.” Though the Other Players died when the company attempted to take the bill to a more conservative theater uptown, it had a successful, if brief, tenure at The Playwright’s Theatre and represents another of Kreymborg’s innovative attempts to provide an audience for experimental art forms.
In an article discussing poetic drama and the ‘little theater movement’ in the United States, Harriet Monroe begins by describing performances of Kreymborg’s one-acts in St. Louis, claiming that Kreymborg is “a poetic and interpretive playwright of original and authentic power, a claimant for wide recognition on the American stage” (Monroe 201). Though poetic drama would fail to catch on with commercial audiences, Kreymborg became a central figure within the ‘little theater movement’ and his plays were seen as innovative in their attempt to apply the principles of free verse to the stage. As Heywood Broun wrote in the New York Tribune in 1918, “The Other Players is the latest and most ultramodern of the little theatres…it aims at the synthesis of the arts” (Broun 4). With his establishing reputation as a dramatist, Kreymborg formed his own troupe in 1917 called The Poem-Mimes, which traveled and performed across the United States. In writing for the stage, Kreymborg was attempting to develop the principles of free verse to avoid stagnancy within a movement that he apparently felt was beginning to lose its innovativeness. He writes in a letter to William Carlos Williams from the early 1920s, “Free verse in itself, or poetry, and its discussion, is not enough. Some of us have proven that we are developing along still other lines, the stage, for instance: you, Saphier, Johns, Head, Stevens, Bodenheim, Cannell, Barnes, Frost, myself, etc. Carrying poetry onto the stage is a huge undertaking, and one that has been mislaid ever since the Elizabethan period. This was one of the new jobs I had hoped to see Others experiment in….” (Newberry Library). Indeed, during their time together editing Others, Kreymborg wrote to Williams proposing a plan to work alongside the Provincetown Players while also suggesting that they create a separate means of producing the plays. He wrote to Williams in 1916, ““We must collect all our plays—independently of Provincetowns—Stevens, you, Carnell, Johns, Bogie, etc.—submit them, and at the same time plan among ourselves, as well as with them as to ways and means of production, publication, etc.” (University of Buffalo). Though Kreymborg hoped to have the Others plays performed with the Provincetown Players, he anticipated that they would be rejected because they were too radical, and he knew that the Others contributors would have to find their own means of production and publication. The Others Players served as a beneficial compromise between the two options. Though in its short existence the group only performed work by Kreymborg and Millay, it served as a hopeful example for the potential of the experimental stage. As Brenda Murphy argues in The Provincetown Players and the Culture of Modernity, “the Other Players were an important artistic force. The group served as a focal point for other artists who were interested in creating experimental theatre, both inside and outside the Provincetown Players” (115).
The reception of Kreymborg’s Plays for Poem Mimes was overwhelmingly positive, and many reviewers anticipated that Kreymborg would become a major figure in American theater with its publication. In a review from The Drama in 1918, Orrick Johns writes, “if I were a Broadway manager the next thing I should do would be to give an adequate season of all of the Kreymborg plays written to date—not because I feel absolutely certain that it would pay (though doubtless it would)” (Johns 416). Though Johns comments upon the artistic merit rather than the commercial possibilities of the plays, he suggests that Kreymborg’s work could bridge the gap between the little theater and commercial theater. Writing in The Dial in 1919, Lola Ridge also anticipates that Kreymborg will become a central figure in American theater, claiming, “Deftly, surely, with his sensitive musician’s fingers, Kreymborg touches those tenuous quivering threads that radiate beneath the compact surface of life…Whether we like him or not, it will soon be obligatory to recognize Kreymborg as an impelling force in the new American drama” (29-30). Similarly, Ridge reviewed Kreymborg’s plays again in 1921 in The Double Dealer, writing, “They are the creations of an intensely individual artist who is not a follower, but an explorer and breaker of new paths—an artist whose importance to the young American drama has not yet begun to be estimated” (Ridge 229). Though in the 1921 review there is an implicit recognition that her prophecy from the 1919 review has not yet materialized, Ridge still believes that Kreymborg will be eventually recognized as an extremely influential figure.
As many critics have suggested, “Lima Beans” is a satire on the monotonous conventions of marriage and domestic life. With the rupture of a simple marital routine, the couple is thrust into a ridiculous argument that satirizes typical marital disputes. Underlying the explicit content about marriage and domesticity, however, is a sexual tension between the two characters—throughout the play, the string bean is masculinized and the lima bean is feminized. In a passage that contrasts the two beans in terms of gender polarities, the husband describes the lima bean as “that soft, soothing/succulent, caressing/creamy, persuasively serene/my buttery entity,” whereas he calls the string bean an “elongated, cadaverous/throat-scratching, greenish/caterpillar…a parochial/menial pleb” (Kreymborg 49-50). With the husband’s exclamation, “to Hymen!” the bean dispute suggests that the argument is actually concerned with the consummation of the marriage. The end of the play, when the wife hands her husband a bowl of lima beans, may be a symbolic gesture of her agreeing to consummate their relationship; yet as the curtain disrupts the end of the play, the symbolic act of the exchange remains ambiguous.
“Manikin and Minikin”
In “Manikin and Minikin,” Kreymborg uses inanimate marionettes to explore the limitations of poetic language in expressing human emotions. Between the dolls, love is treated as a logical emotion, a product of “contrast and deduction” (Kreymborg 99). The tension between inanimate objects and animate emotion becomes apparent when Manikin says, “Words were never given to man/to phrase such a one as you are/inanimate symbols/can never embrace, embody, hold/the animate dream that you are” (96). Though Manikin suggests that human emotions are subject to constant change and marionettes’ emotions are consistent, the play ironically ends with Manikin refusing to reassure Minikin of his love, suggesting the fluidity of his own emotions. The rapid, staccato dialogue matches the metronome of the clock that sits between the two dolls, and the repetition of phrases between the characters functions like musical counterpoint.